Adrian Segar has been talking about participant-driven meetings for decades, but it wasn’t until he published Conferences That Work, Creating Events That People Love in 2009 that he became involved in the meetings industry at large. “I didn’t even know Meeting Professionals International existed until two years ago,” he says. Since then the Marlboro, Vt.–based conference organizer, facilitator, author, and blogger, has led sessions at MPI’s World Education Conference, several EventCamp events, and more. With a new book on the way in 2012, we quizzed Segar on the importance of participation at events.

Corporate Meetings & Incentives: What is a participant-driven event?

Adrian Segar: Participant-driven event designs create meetings that become what attendees want and need them to be. They give attendees the opportunity to share their knowledge and expertise; participants often discover they have information that they didn’t even know was valuable to other people. You think about your attendees not as customers but as resources, which is a very different way of thinking.

CMI: How does it work?

Segar: I start a participant-driven meeting using a round-table technique in which everyone gets a card with three questions on it: Why am I in the room? What do I want to have happen? What experience or expertise do I have that other people might find useful. Everybody presents their answers to the group. After going around the room, you’ve exposed a huge amount of information. Not only do attendees discover whom they want to meet, but also what the group is interested in and what the resources in the group are. The process after that is basically matching up the desires and needs of the people who are there with the resources that are available. I've developed a process for creating a program of peer-driven sessions in which participants first suggest topics they’d like to discuss, then sign up for the ones they’d like to attend.

CMI: So the participant-driven meeting process is for small groups?

Segar: The book talks about how you can do this with up to 100 people. Everyone asks what happens when you have more than that number, and my answer is that, basically, networking doesn’t scale. It’s not like a broadcast session, where you can just put more chairs in the room. If I have more than 50 people at a participant-driven event, the three-questions session needs to happen in two or more groups. Practically speaking, you can’t be introduced to more than 50 or 60 people in a few days.

CMI: How did you get interested in this?

Segar: Twenty years ago, when the personal computer finally became affordable, people began to realize they could use them to automate the administrative systems at schools. Hundreds of people across the U.S. suddenly had jobs where they had to figure this out. I was working at a small liberal arts school and I was one of those people. We got together for a conference and had to figure out how to create an event that was useful to us when there were no experts. Collectively, we were the experts. We had to come up with a process for figuring out what each of us had done, what each of us was interested in finding out, and how to match that up. That was the start of my interest in participant-driven conferences.

CMI: Is demand for participant-driven events on the rise?

Segar: Absolutely. First, the world has changed. Six years ago there was no YouTube, no Facebook, no online TED Talks. If you wanted to hear someone speak, you had to go physically and listen. Now broadcast-style content is widely available online and I don’t think the impact of that is really resonating with conference organizers yet. In traditional events, networking has always been an afterthought, something you are supposed to do between the conference sessions, in the hallways, at meals and social events. There’s no support for it. But if session content is now freely available online, and your networking isn’t very good, why should people attend? Organizers are going to have to focus more on what can’t be replicated online; we need to bring connections and networking into our conference sessions.

Another point is that 30 years ago, most of what you needed to know to do your job you learned in the classroom or at company trainings. Today, research says that you learn most of what you need to know for your job from your peers. Our conferences need to reflect that. Participants say, “My peers know the stuff that I’m dying to learn about.” Participant-driven events give them ways to find it out, rather than just having to listen to a speaker who may not be talking about what they need to know.

CMI: What’s your new book about?

Segar: While my first book was about participant-driven events, the next one is about bringing participation into any kind of event. Participant-driven events are more radical, but anyone can add participation to a session. You don’t have to change your style of event or content at all. The book, which will probably be titled something like “Participation Techniques to Transform Conference Sessions,” has lots of ideas for getting groups to interact. One technique is creating human spectrograms, in which participants position themselves along a line to show how much they agree or disagree with a statement from the session leader. It gets participants moving about, which they like, but also lets them see how other people are voting.

CMI: Are participation-rich events more likely to be embraced by corporations than participant-driven events?

Segar: Definitely, but they work well for companies getting into a new field or launching a new initiative, where you’ve got a small group of people coming together for the first time. Participation-driven events work for internal corporate groups that have the power and the initiative to figure out what they need to do, and where there aren’t necessarily any clearly defined experts.